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December 7, 2016

Sights that don’t bother us


December 7, 2016


You are a Pakistani. You are reading this newspaper. Either it was delivered to your doorstep when the day began or put on your desk at work. You may be reading it in the morning at the breakfast table, during the day between two of your official meetings, while being driven home in the evening or over a cup of tea before going to bed. You may not be reading the hardcopy. As technology goes, this may well be one of the many newspapers you are browsing on the internet.

In any case, you are reading a newspaper in English. Even if you are not rich, you are certainly better off than most of the people around you in terms of access to opportunities and upward social mobility. You had the possibility to learn the language in school or perhaps a little later. You must have just read or heard that 92 percent of those sitting the competitive civil service examination in Pakistan fail in the subject of English. Meaning thereby that you are among the privileged women and men in your country. Let me remind you of what you and I see every day, from the time we get up in the morning to the time we call it a day. These are scenes around us that go unnoticed and completely fail to bother us.

Winter has just begun. You get up in the morning to the doorbell of the housemaid. Your driver opens the door for her and then goes out into the porch to wash your car. Since your maid lives in an unheated squatter nearby and then gets dropped off by her younger brother on a bicycle, you see her entering the house shivering with cold. The kitchen, where the stove and the oven are warming everyone, is a respite for her at this hour.

You leave home. At the first square you reach, your car stops at the traffic lights and you see a seven to eight-year old boy holding a bottle of soap water and a wiper – appearing from nowhere – trying to clean your windshield. Your driver cautions him not to come near the car. He stays away but continues to look at you with beseeching eyes until he finds another car that comes and parks besides yours. The boy has not washed in days, his nails are dirty, hands are rough, eyes yellow but his fingers are still nimble.

You reach your workplace. You are early because the boss is in the US and wants to Skype with you before going to sleep. You find the cleaner entering the building with you. He greets you and goes straight to the kitchen. You follow him to get yourself a cup of coffee. The cleaner takes out a paratha rolled into a polythene bag for his quick breakfast, opens the lower drawer of the dresser and takes out a cracked plastic plate and a chipped china cup – kept for him separately from the utensils used by other office staff. He is almost always a Christian from a village in central Punjab and whose parents were also cleaners.

You have reached the middle of the day after a couple of Skype calls, signing off papers, reading documents, responding to emails and meeting a colleague who has just returned from a field visit. You decide to go out for lunch to a restaurant downtown with a couple of colleagues. You see a group of people arrive in the restaurant and claim a large table reserved for them.

It seems it is a family get-together with women and men of all ages, children and young people. They are sitting right next to you so you can hear them order loads of food. They look well dressed, well groomed, well educated, and light skinned. Just behind them, there is a short, dark, skinny ten-year old girl sitting at a small table holding a one-year old child. She gets to eat from a plate made by her mistress – the mother of the child she is holding – after everyone at the large table has eaten.

You get back to work without much ado and finish off the remaining tasks. It is evening and the sun is about to set. You leave for home. At the first traffic light, you find a girl, not more than fourteen years old, dupatta hanging at the back of her head, brownish hair knotted into a braid, big and dark but muddy eyes, selling flowers.

By the way, this girl was not born with brown hair nor did she get them dyed from the parlour that your sister frequents. Intense and continuous exposure to sun on the streets all year long since she was a baby has tanned her skin and browned her hair. She is perhaps just fourteen but bikers ask her to sit behind them, cars driven by men of all ages (particularly older men) look at her lasciviously and smile, and some of you who buy flowers from her do not refrain from haggling with her to bring the price of the flowers down.

You reach home, change, relax, watch TV, skim through a magazine, chat with your spouse and children and meet some visiting relative or friend. Dinner is served. You have your heart’s fill. Steamed broccoli was particularly good and it goes well with chicken roast. You have been having desi food for many days. Today was a good break. Sometime after dinner, you decide to go on a drive as the younger one has done well in her tests at school. You promised to buy her ice cream or maybe frozen fruit yogurt.

You drive yourself now and go to a place where some good eateries, cafes and ice cream parlours are located. As you park, you find an old man pacing up to you with balloons and cheap plastic toys. He literally begs you to buy something off him. He is old, dark, malnourished and weak. His footwear is stitched all over and his shalwar kameez is crumpled. The sweater he wears has holes the size of a cricket ball. You buy something if your child insists, you don’t if she doesn’t. After having dessert, you and your family head back home. After a while, you hit the bed. The day ends.

All the sights that I have mentioned fail to bother us – both you and I. We remain totally undisturbed. From the doorbell that wakes us up sometimes to the coarse voice of the old man selling balloons a little before midnight – nothing bothers us.

Since you are educated and perhaps think of yourself as kind and generous, you do not mind your housemaid making a cup of tea for herself. But only after your bed tea is served and breakfast for your children is laid out. It would seldom bother you that she comes from a squatter where there is no proper heating in the winter and no cooling in the summer. The boy who wanted to clean your windshield should have been in school. The young man who keeps your office clean and usable should be able to eat in the same plate as you do besides being paid a decent wage.

The short, dark, skinny ten-year old girl should also be in school, and if sitting in a restaurant must eat before the elders get to. A child minding a child on a low wage should embarrass the employers more than the parents who leave their children behind to work out of sheer poverty and distress. The teenage girl who was selling flowers must be in high school and protected by state and society just like your niece is. The old man selling balloons should be able to rest after sunset like your father does.

Consciousness is not a change in itself but the beginning of a change.

The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.

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